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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks to the Youth Chamber of Commerce in Montreal on Jan. 20, 2011. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks to the Youth Chamber of Commerce in Montreal on Jan. 20, 2011. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Ignatieff defends Sikhs' right to wear kirpan Add to ...

It's one place in Canada where the words won't help him, but Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff went to Quebec and defended the right of Sikhs to wear the kirpan.

Speaking French in a province where francophones have less and less patience for religious accommodation, Mr. Ignatieff said Sikhs should have the right to wear the kirpan in all democratic institutions, including Quebec's National Assembly. The ceremonial dagger is not a weapon, the Liberal Leader emphasized.

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"All Canadians have the right to access their democratic and parliamentary spaces," Mr. Ignatieff told reporters. "It's a question of tolerance, of religious freedom."

Citing unbending security rules, National Assembly officials turned away four Sikhs this week after they refused to surrender their pointy-but-edgeless ceremonial daggers. One day later, the Bloc Québécois proposed Parliament in Ottawa should consider a similar measure.

The move surprised federal parties and left some twisting. The Conservatives punted questions to the sergeant-at-arms, saying they don't wish to play politics with security. After some delay, the NDP blasted the Bloc proposition as shameful.

By Thursday, the NDP's Quebec MP, Thomas Mulcair, and even the ones who started it, the Bloc Québécois, didn't want to talk about it.

The torment clarified one thing: Without a consensus, the parliamentary committee in charge of security is unlikely to adopt a kirpan rule.

For the Bloc, the mission was accomplished. Quebec has less than 3 per cent of Canada's Sikh population and a growing secular streak. With no seats to be gained in diverse corners of the rest of Canada, the Bloc was free to drive a political wedge.

"I was a bit surprised to see the Bloc trying to press such a purely Quebec value in Ottawa, with its very different culture," said Christian Dufour, a political scientist at Montreal's École nationale d'administration publique.

But the move posed little risk for the Bloc, he said. "Francophone Quebeckers are less religious than almost anywhere else on the planet. Among elites, secularism has a much bigger place. Among the people, there is a more visceral rejection of religion, it's completely discredited."

"But make no mistake, Quebeckers are saying out loud what a lot of Canadians think," Mr. Dufour said. "This may explain why many politicians in the rest of Canada have such a hard time with it."

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